Finally, a better man
"I am consumed with weight worry!"
Robbie Williams, international icon of pop, is sitting in a TV studio ante-room in Sydney, tattooed hands clasped. He's here to promote his 10th album, Swings Both Ways, but - as always - he's brilliantly off-message.
"I am!" he insists. "Like a girl! Inside me there's a fat man dying to get out, all the time. All the time!"
As the 16-year-old baby of infamous boy band Take That, Robbie Williams was (correctly) packaged as the "cheeky one": the crazy-eyed, wide-mouthed joker juggling melons at the five-star buffet or mooning people from the luxury yacht.
Later, after he controversially left the band, he seemed just plain crazy: in and out of rehab, drinking and dosing himself to oblivion, searching for UFOs on the deck of his high-security LA mansion surrounded by the five luxury cars he bought in a single afternoon even though he couldn't drive.
Of course, during the same period he also managed to record seven No. 1 albums, sell 70 million records, and win 17 BRIT Awards - but even so. He was like a toddler with a loaded gun: never more than a heartbeat away from disaster.
Yet today, in the flesh, he's like the idealised form of his earlier self: same striking pale eyes and thick lashes; same truly excellent northern English accent (he makes a hard edge of every "g", so that phrases like "being a singer" make you want to laugh), same bad tattoos (including a new teddy bear, for his baby daughter, Theodora "Teddy" Rose); but no angst, no drama, no hurtling-towards-disaster warning signs. I am bound to report, however, in the interests of truth in journalism, that he is, indeed, fatter.
"I had a surprise birthday the other week," he says - he turned 40 in February - "and I just ate and ate and ate. Afterwards I said to Ayda [Field, his wife of three years], 'I think I'm going to reinvent myself as a fat, cuddly person. It'd just be easier.' "
Maybe you've relaxed, I suggest: contentment doesn't always breed low body fat. "Maybe that's true; maybe since I've found Ayda I've got fat and happy," says Williams, sounding pleased.
"I hunted and gathered for a long time, and then I went back to the cave and said, 'Right, let's eat this shit!' "
He starts to laugh. "I'm going to become Fat Cuddly Dad. And I could be a family entertainer: there's a nice thing going on with the swing music. I don't think you have to be ..." - he sucks his cheeks in - "you can be rotund and sing these songs."
Frank Sinatra was a bit rotund, wasn't he?
"Well, yes." Williams laughs again, giving a bounce on the sofa. "But he was 80 when he was rotund. I'm 40 years behind him."
What has made Robbie Williams happy? If you go back to the beginning of his career, or even his life, the long-term prognosis didn't look good. His childhood, he explains, was grim. "I come from a very bleak, very working-class town where people beat the shit out of each other," he says. "I had parents who were really not getting on with each other; no money; all fucking horrendous."
His father, comedian Pete Conway (who recently married a woman Williams' age) left when Williams was three: he was raised by his older half sister and his mother, Janet, whom he adores. As an over-the-top, insecure teenager, fantasy was his escape - "Fantasising about being an actor, or a singer or going to the moon," he once said. Or, of course, becoming a member of a stratospherically successful boy band.
From inauspicious beginnings ("I think I was the fifth person to audition," Williams once explained, "out of a total of six"), Take That became the mega-manufactured band of the 1990s, with multiple international No. 1 hits, including 11 in Britain (their biggest single, Back for Good, reached No. 1 in 31 countries).
At the height of their fame, Williams and his fellow band members inhabited a world where crazed fans hurled themselves in front of their chauffeured cars on a daily basis, camped in front of their parents' homes for weeks on end, and fainted away en masse at their concerts.
Behind the matching shell suits and the co-ordinated break-dancing, however, tensions were high. Gary Barlow, Take That's lead singer, has admitted, "Rob wanted a voice. He was a frustrated writer and singer ... [but] he only ever got rejection."
Stifled and increasingly isolated, by 1995, after four years with the group, Williams was drinking a bottle of vodka a night, taking drugs, missing rehearsals. A lot of this was typical teenage rebellion. But some of it, it turned out, was undiagnosed depression.
In November 1995, amid scenes of great bitterness (and, once again, a melon), Williams left Take That. The remaining quartet lasted only three months without him, and went on to forge solo careers of more or less spectacular obscurity.
Williams, meanwhile, a bleached-hair, addict-skinny live wire, spent the next two decades interspersing his alcoholism and class-A binging with one massive hit after another.
This is because Robbie Williams is that rare thing, a genuine pop star. He's extremely, naturally charismatic (even Gary Barlow once admitted, "I'm never going to win a popularity contest with Rob").
He writes irreverent, inexorably catchy songs whose job is the same as his: to entertain. And he takes this job seriously. In concerts, he arrives on stage suspended by his ankles, or attached to a zip-line, or balanced on an eight-metre replica of his own head. He dances and sings and sweats and works. And people love him.
His very first solo album, 1997's Life Thru a Lens, containing the massively successful single Angels, spent 40 weeks in the British top 10, and sold three million copies in Europe. He followed it with more huge singles - Millennium, Rock DJ, Feel - and more huge albums - The Ego Has Landed, Escapology, Intensive Care.
His 2006 world tour entered Guinness World Records for the fastest ticket sales in history: 1.6 million in a single day. Over the years, whatever he did - big-band music, film soundtracks, Frank Sinatra covers, collaborations with people as unlikely as Nicole Kidman - turned to pop gold.
But none of it made him happy. As his world got bigger, so it got smaller. He had the money (an estimated fortune of £130 million) for a huge house in LA, but he couldn't sleep except in tiny spaces like the box room he'd had as a child. He had 24-hour security to protect him from people, but he couldn't bear to be alone. He wanted to be relaxed, happy and in love, but instead he was bitter about Take That. ("Sorry, Gary," he said bitchily while collecting one of his BRITs, "but I was always the talented member of the band.")
He hated ex-Take That svengali and manager Nigel Martin-Smith (who successfully sued him twice for defamation, winning six-figure sums both times), and he was useless at relationships. "I was so lonely and co-dependent, from my early 20s onwards I was always saying, 'I want someone to fix me!' What I wanted was a maid."
Then, in his late 20s, he finally sought (prescription, as opposed to illicit) drug therapy for depression.
"Suddenly, I sort of felt all right," he explains. "I was like, 'Hang on. I'm good here. This is all right.' " In 2006, just before a final stint in rehab, he met Turkish-American actress Ayda Field, a former law student and graduate of American soap Days of Our Lives. And then he retired from the world.
"One day I decided to stay in, and I didn't come out for three years. I just ate kettle chips, watched reality TV, wore a kaftan."
This sounds odd, but you can see his point. He'd been famous since he was a teenager (one year in Take That he received 80,000 Valentines), he had more money than he could ever spend, and he was worn out being the emperor of pop. And most of all, at long last, there was somebody to stay in with.
Field moved into Williams' LA pad in 2009, and the pair married in 2010. For someone who has made a life - and many, many hit songs - out of the ironic one-liner, Williams is surprisingly unironic about her.
"I made a promise to myself in my late 20s that I wasn't going to get married or have kids," he says. "I suppose a lot of it was to do with deep depression, but there were no good adverts for relationships: there wasn't anybody that was in a relationship where I went, 'Yeah, that's brilliant, I want a bit of that.'
"Then somehow I found this person who is my best friend, who I get on with, who I spend 24 hours a day with normally. We don't wind each other up, you know? We go forward as a unit; we're in love, she's really funny."
He lifts his hands, which are surprisingly hairy; his right fingers are tattooed with the letters L-O-V-E. "I used to do a lot of time in AA and therapy and stuff, and they always used to talk about a God-shaped hole. 'Your problem is a God-shaped hole.' And I used to be always trying to search for some sort of spirituality, or an understanding of God. And since I found Ayda eight years ago, I've stopped praying." He shrugs and smiles, almost apologetic. "She's my God-shaped hole."
Eight years, I say: in Hollywood terms you've been together forever. "Like dog years!" laughs Williams. "Yeah, we have. Every day's a PB."
Since their marriage, Williams - who used to be the sort of bloke who specialised in remarks like, "I am the only man who can say he's been in Take That and at least two members of the Spice Girls" - has been learning about "consistency. And trust. I really trust her. And she, mistakenly, trusts me!" He gives a Dr Evil laugh. "Ah ha HA! But she does. And I am a guy with a penis, and I'm a pop star, so I do things like Have Sex With Women. So I've taken my head out of the lion's mouth in that regard: I don't put myself in positions where I could betray her trust. So far, so good."
He hasn't totally reformed, however. Last year, actor Emma Thompson asked him on a TV talk show if he'd been down the "business end" during his daughter's birth. "Yeah, yeah, I was," he said, looking sad. "It was like watching my favourite pub burn down."
If birth was like that, how is fatherhood? His daughter was born in September 2012 ("Theodora if she's a doctor, Teddy if she's a stripper," he told one journalist - "we've got it all covered") and he's touchingly defenceless about his love for her.
He wrote the whimsical Go Gentle on Swings Both Ways for her; he wants her to grow up in England, close to his roots but far, far removed from his own childhood. "There's some lovely posh people I've met that I would like her to be like," the working-class boy from Stoke-on-Trent told one reporter. "You know, with that accent and upbringing and education and lovely manners."
There seems to be no conflict between being a pop star and being a dad. Williams went on tour last year, and "graciously, Ayda let me do my business - go to sleep when I wanted to, wake up when I wanted to". This grace, of course, was aided by large numbers of domestic staff, but when the tour ended, even the fleet of servants and his kind wife couldn't protect him from brutal parental realities.
"It was full on: all the early mornings, weekends, everything!" He laughs. "I go for an hour and I'm the perfect father, then I think, 'Shit, I've got to do this forever? She's going to be here tomorrow morning, again?' " He grins. "So I can be a bit resentful. Actually, I'm not resentful in the moment, but I see a resentful in the future. It's weird. But it's not my primary emotion. It's all wrapped up in the same love ball."
He and Field are currently "completely taken up" trying for another baby, and when, through a long series of disasters, he meets my own 18-month-old daughter at the Good Weekend photo shoot, he seems genuinely thrilled. "Oooh, she makes me miss Teddy so much," he says, wriggling. "Does she like stories? Have you done That's Not My Hippo yet?" He addresses her gently. "Can I have a cuddle?" At which point my daughter, crushingly, becomes the first girl in history to refuse a cuddle with Robbie Williams.
In 2005, to everyone's surprise, the four non-Robbie Williams members of Take That re-formed the band. They released two albums and defied all expectations (including their own) by being extremely successful. Initially Williams wanted nothing to do with them, though he said he wished them well. But in late 2009, he agreed to a series of secret meetings in LA. The idea? To see if it might be possible to work together again.
In one sense, this sounds completely self-indulgent. In Look Back, Don't Stare, a documentary made about the rapprochement, the levels of male ego and designer stubble in the room are almost laughable. But, it seems, ego and stubble might be two crucial ingredients in pop success: the quintet's subsequent album, Progress, debuted at No. 1 in Britain and became that country's fastest-selling album of the 21st century.
There was considerably less fanfare in other places. "The boys came out here," Williams recalls, laughing, "and Australians just totally took the piss out of them! They got back on the plane and said, 'What was the f...ing point of that?!' " But you get the sense that nobody really minds; not their fans, and certainly not Williams. He says he hopes he'll do more stuff with Take That in future. "The whole [reunion] shifted an awful lot of shit," he admits. "We shall write again at some point, because it was a lot of fun."
Robbie Williams has never taken himself too seriously. As he once put it, "I've managed to stretch an elastic band to the moon and back with what I've got." This self-deprecation and its attendant self-awareness have always endeared him to fans. Whatever else he's done, he's never bored us by trying to be anything other than what he is: a northern lad with a genius for pop.
"I was thinking about all this the other day," he confesses. "They say you become stunted at the point you become famous. Which means I'm still 16. And I really am! I'm a man-child! I still don't know the price of milk; I live far from the world where I grew up." He grins. "But I have learnt how to entertain hundreds of thousands of people. Everything else I'm really shit at, but I've excelled at that."
ROBBIE OVER THE DECADES
1990: At just 16, after his mum saw an ad, Robbie Williams is selected with four others - Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Jason Orange and Mark Owen - to make up Take That.
1997: After splitting with Take That, and a stint in rehab, Williams releases his first solo album, Life Thru a Lens, which in turn spawns the monster single Angels.
2000: Between numerous brief flings, and much to the delight of the gossip mags, Williams dates Spice Girl Geri Halliwell (having dated her fellow Spice Girl Mel C in 1997).
February 2007: After extensive partying, he enters rehab again, reportedly for his addiction to prescription pills ... and the energy drink Lucozade.
2010: Williams finally "settles down" and marries his Turkish-American girlfriend, actor Ayda Field, at his home in Los Angeles.
2012: In September, Williams becomes a father after Field gives birth to their daughter, Theodora Rose.
2013: Williams makes a spectacular entrance during his Take the Crown tour last year by walking down a huge sculpture of his own head.
Sydney Morning Herald